It’s no secret that we do things a bit differently in the East. Our churches look (and smell) different, our hymns sound different, and our liturgical calendar has feast days that don’t even occur in the West. It only follows that our Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany traditions should differ too. Here’s how the Byzantines deck the halls.
To put it simply, we um, we don’t have one.
Yeah, we don’t really have an Advent. Or, well, we don’t really call it “Advent.” We have the Nativity Fast, also known as Phillip’s Fast, which starts in early November. That’s right, while the rest of Christendom is loading up on peppermint bark and hot cocoa, we’re over here eating fish. Just…so much fish.
The Nativity Fast isn’t as strict as the Lenten Fast (and everyone knows that the Byzantines are basically the Spartans of Lenten fasting), but fish is still the only meat allowed and it’s encouraged that one avoid oil and dairy. Which, you might have noticed, are the main ingredients in approximately 1000% of the Christmas candy that stores shove onto their shelves at exactly 12 AM on November 1st. The fast also runs right through Thanksgiving, but most people in America make exceptions for that day because our Lord is merciful and understands our unique weakness for turkey stuffed with butter. Wine and oil are permitted in the last days of the fast during the Forefeast of the Nativity (the Byzantine version of pre-gaming), until finally the fast ends on…
The Feast of the Nativity According to the Flesh of Our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ
Done reading that yet? I’ll wait.
So, yeah, Byzantines technically don’t have Christmas either, because language differences and cultural barriers. In the Eastern Churches, Christmas is known as The Feast of the Nativity, and its full name up there is so wordy because the Church Fathers who were involved in the construction of the liturgical calendar wanted to throw as much shade as they possibly could at those who denied either the humanity or divinity of Christ. So if you want to be theologically precise, and impress (or exasperate) your friends and family, wish them a happy…that, instead.
Liturgically, the Feast of the Nativity is celebrated similarly to Western Christmas, with an evening service the night before. The Divine Liturgy of St. Basil is served, and at Vespers the Old Testament prophecies of Jesus’ birth are sung. There is also a vigil, after which everyone venerates the icon of the Nativity. A festal Liturgy is usually served the next morning. Which then begins…
The Twelve Days of Christmas
Yep, we actually do have something in common with Western Christmas and that is the Twelve Days of Christmas. Twelve blissfully fast-free days stuffed to the gills with important Incarnation-related observances.
The day after the Nativity is the Synaxis of the Theotokos, followed by the feast day of St. Stephen on the 27th, the 20,000 Martyrs of Nicomedia on the 28th, the Holy Innocents on the 29th, the Feast of the Circumcision and St. Basil the Great (helloooo king’s cake) on New Year’s Day, the Synaxis of the 70 on January 4th, and then finally we get to…
The Feast of the Holy Theophany of Our Lord, God, and Savior, Jesus Christ
This is where the East and the West diverge pretty wildly in the Christmas season, so just stay with me, here.
No, no, no bruh, it’s cool. This is actually one of my favorite liturgical celebrations and it might even end up being yours too. So, the West has Epiphany, right? “We three kings of Orient are;” gold, frankincense, and myrrh; all that good stuff. Well the Eastern Churches generally recognize the Wise Men on the day of the Nativity. The 6th of January is all about the Baptism of Jesus, also called the Theophany (“the appearance of God”), which the West celebrates the Sunday after Epiphany. It’s the culmination of the Christmas season for us, a celebration of the sanctification of Creation, and a day bustling with excitement. Liturgy is served, and the Great Blessing of the Waters takes place, when the priest blesses the holy water to be used by the parish in the coming year. Passages from Isaiah are read which talk about deserts becoming rivers and streams of grace flowing and it’s basically my favorite thing ever. It is also tradition for the congregation to be sprinkled with holy water. Which is less of a sprinkling and more like sitting in the splash zone at Sea-World because when we Byzantines do a thing we DO THE THING. Homes are also blessed on Theophany, and for days afterward the priest makes the rounds to everyone’s house, sloshing holy water in every corner.
There is also a Greek tradition of cross-diving which is exactly what it sounds like. After Liturgy on the day of Theophany, teenage boys from the parish gather at the nearest body of water, the priest or bishop throws a handmade cross into the water, and the boys compete to retrieve it. It is considered a great honor and blessing to retrieve the cross, and those who do proudly display it in their homes even as old men. Tarpon Springs, Florida is one of the best and most well-known places to see this tradition in action in the US–every year on January the 6th, people from all over the country gather for the festival-like celebration and to see who comes out of Spring Bayou with the coveted cross. It’s kind of a big deal.
Right? Theophany is the best. Then after that…
The Lenten Triodion Begins On February 5th, 2017. Cue sad trombone.